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Published Sep. 16, 2009

Even on a ranch stacked with miles of trees, the old oak tree stands out.

It's big, but it's not the size that beguiles Milo Thomas.

It's the odd shape of it. The branches droop to one side, almost touching the ground before rising again. It looks almost like a human hand, its fingers gently tapping time.

"I've been fixing to show you this," he said. "The Indians used to pray here."

Thomas doesn't know how old it is.

The tree was here when he started piecing his ranch together 22 years ago. It was here when he still ran a dairy in Odessa.

It was here when he sold the roughly 800 acres that became Oakstead on State Road 54. And the 1,450 acres that became Westchase in Tampa.

It was here when he still had his wife, his two sons and his grandson. It will be here on this 1,500-acre wonderland when he dies.

"I started to buy this place in April 1985," Thomas said. "A piece of this here, a piece of this there. After I got rid of the dairy, I moved everything here."

He's 85 now, and this land, circled by Crews Lake and the Pithlachascotee River, has become a soulmate.

So it's not altogether surprising that Thomas just doesn't want to move any more.

But there's just one multimillion-dollar problem.

It became clear to Thomas in 1989 when his friends, the Starkey family, found themselves slapped with $9-million in estate taxes after J.B. Starkey Sr. died.

The Starkeys had to liquidate their 16,000 acres at the barrel of the government's gun, and Thomas learned a lesson.

"It took them a long and hard way to get the money to pay for it," he said. "A family would have to wipe out everything they got to pay the government."

To any sensible person, now would seem like a good time to settle in some suburban lot or seaside condominium.

But Thomas isn't always sensible. This is a man who couldn't even be bothered to report a shrapnel wound he received during the second World War. "You lose a fingernail, you get a Purple Heart," he scoffs.

This is a story of how one of Pasco's last big ranchers found a way to stay home.

History of tragedy

There's something of a mischievous boy in Milo Thomas. He doesn't mind interrupting an interview to inform a photographer that she is "a cutie."

The boy grew up in the southeastern Polk County community of Frostproof, where his father ran a citrus and cattle farm. The Great Depression wiped out most of his dad's livelihood, and the family moved to Oldsmar.

"The only thing I inherited was a good name," he said.

When he got back from fighting the second World War as a Navy man stationed in the Pacific, Thomas and his six siblings started over. They leased bits of property in what is now Westchase. Acre by acre, they bought up the land.

As their beef business got under way, Thomas branched into a dairy operation in Odessa in 1957. That wound down as Trinity Memorial Cemetery began to take shape on his doorstep.

Before he left Odessa in 1987, Thomas bought 100 lots in the graveyard for his family members.

"That's where most of my family are, and that's where I'm going to be when I die," he said.

By then, Thomas was already familiar with tragedy.

He had three sons. One hit a tree while driving and died at 18. Another was killed at 32 in a farming accident. A 16-year-old grandson collapsed while running a lap around a football field.

His wife fell to lung cancer in 1984. But he believes the kids' deaths were what killed her.

He couldn't stand to stay in the same house where she died. So he moved north to the flat expanse on U.S. 41 that he had spent four years assembling.

This is where he still keeps 560 head of Brangus and Braford cows, where sandhill cranes and alligators roam, and where the law of the land is spelled out in the chalk-white bones of dead calves ravaged by coyotes.

It is the only life that Thomas has known.

"I never had any hobbies," he said. "To me, riding a horse wasn't a hobby. I don't golf. I don't hunt. I don't fish."

Friends to the rescue

His friends are his former ranching neighbors in Odessa: the Starkeys and the Mitchells.

As the Starkey family grappled with their estate tax nightmare, Thomas began to fret about his ranch.

"I couldn't have sold to a developer and be able to retain the place for my lifetime," he said. "If a developer bought it, they would have come in and built houses."

Most of his siblings are dead. Only two older sisters, Dora and Virginia, are left. Thomas, who lives with his ranch hand Joe Barbosa and housekeeper Virginia Barbosa, is estranged from his remaining son.

The solution took more than a decade to come.

In late 2002, Thomas got a call from his banker, with an offer from the Mitchell family.

They wanted to buy the ranch, but it would remain undeveloped and Thomas could stay there for as long as he lived.

Dates fade in and out of Thomas' memory these days, but he remembers this one quite clearly.

"On the 10th day of December was when I sold all this land to the Mitchells," he said.

Thomas declined to disclose the price. The county property appraiser's records show $8.9-million.

What would the Mitchells do with Thomas' ranch?

"We don't have any plans right now," Dewey Mitchell said. "At some point, we're going to have to address that."

It doesn't bother Thomas any more.

He's got his estate plan laid out. He's got his 2-year-old great-granddaughter, Sydney Scott. He's got his Natural American Spirit cigarettes and his cows and his oak tree, on this quiet green land he loves.

"Now all I got to worry about is living," he said.

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or